Saying What Israel Wants to Hear
September 12, 1996 - Rabbi Avi Weiss - Washington Jewish Week OpEd
The 40th anniversary of the Conference of Presidents of Major American
Jewish Organizations was celebrated last week with an exclusive New York
gala and full page ads. Leading Israeli and American politicians including Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Vice President Al Gore gathered to pay
tribute to the organization viewed by the White House as representative of
the American Jewish community, particularly on issues affecting Israel.
But the glare of the spotlight of public attention is undeserved. The
Conference does not represent the will of the people.
This should not be surprising when considering the origins of the
Conference. It came into existence in 1956 at the behest of former US
Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles--no friend of Israel. Irritated
so many Jewish organizations were approaching the White House, Dulles
insisted that there be one voice speaking for the Jewish community.
But since the creation of that one voice, the Jewish community has too
found itself ill-represented. In its search for consensus, the Conference
can stake out only those positions which will not offend its constituent
members. Too often it reaches for the lowest common denominator on many of
the issues it addresses, or, as is most often the case, in its timidity, it
chooses not to address the issues at all.
I am aquainted with many of the key players of the Conference. I know
them to be decent people. But it is not uncommon for members of the Presidents'
Conference to say only that which they believe will be acceptable to the
Israeli government currently in power or the White House.
The Conference lacks backbone. It facilitates whatever policies originate
in Jerusalem or Washington. On May 28th of this year, for instance, the
Conference strongly supported the peace process engineered by Yitzhak Rabin
and then-Prime-Minister Shimon Peres. On May 30th, just one day after
Netanyahu's victory, this same Conference was supportive of the new
The songwriter Billy Joel once wrote: "Honesty is such a lonely word." When
it comes to Israeli politics, the President's Conference has failed to
honestly express an independent ideological doctrine.
It acts similarly in the American political arena. For example, when
Strobe Talbott was nominated for assistant secretary of state, the Zionist
Organization of America--a Conference member, lobbied against the
nomination and publicized Talbot's numerous essays written for Time magazine which were overtly hostile to Israel. As a result, significant concern was raised in the
pro-Israel Jewish community. Still, the Presidents' Conference said nothing
on the matter. In fact, two Conference leaders arranged a meeting with
Talbot and emerged, telling the press that they felt comfortable with the White
To be sure, there have been times when the Conference challenged the
House. To wit, the Conference's criticism of President Bush's notorious
comment of one lonely guy being confronted by 1,000 Jewish lobbyists on
Hill. But by and large, the Conference compromises on principle.
Although the Conference is made up of presidents of American Jewish
organizations, it is not a democratic institution. It's chair is not
elected in an open and fair vote. Two Conference leaders huddle over the
appointment of a tiny nominating committee. This unelected committee recommends a candidate who is then placed in office by the "acclaim" of Conference
members. Nor does the Conference deal with issues in a democratic way. This
umbrella group, which claims to represent the body politic of American
Jewry, cannot be taken seriously when it has held only two or three meetings over
the past three years to openly discuss issues and provides no opportunity
for members to raise topics not on the agenda.
Not withstanding all these shortcomings, the Conference prepared this
40th anniversary celebration with one purpose in mind: to further project the
image of the Conference as THE spokesperson for the American Jewish
community. Too often, however, the President's Conference is out of touch
with the will of the people.
The Jonathan Pollard case--the naval officer who transferred classified
material to Israel--illustrates the problem. In an unprecedented show of
unity and grassroots support, one thousand rabbis, Orthodox, Conservative,
Reform and Reconstructionist, signed a petition to the President of the
United States on Pollard's behalf. Rabbis are the Jewish leaders most in
touch with the people. Their extraordinary support for Pollard makes clear
where the community stands on this issue.
Despite this, never once has the Conference raised the Pollard issue in a
formal meeting with the President of the United States - thereby giving the
President the impression that the Pollard case is not a priority issue in
our community. At the anniversary event no Conference official publicly spoke
about the importance of the President commuting Pollard's sentence. How may
we expect the President to do that which we do not demand of him to do?
The issue here is one of empowerment. Does the Conference speak for the
Jewish community? Does it represent the will of the people? Perhaps the
following experiment should be conducted. Stop the first 100 Jews in the
street outside Conference offices and ask them if they know the names of
the leaders of the Conference? Odds are few will, and even fewer will know
the positions they espouse.
To be sure,there is no institution in America today that can claim to
represent the Jewish community. But the very absence of true
representation should provide the impetus for developing a plan to democratically elect a body that will accurately reflect the views of Am Yisrael.
How unfortunate that at the President's Conference event, no one stood up
to declare: This bash is nothing less than the classic tale of "the Emperor
Has No Clothes."
Rabbi Avi Weiss is national president of the Coalition for Jewish
Concerns-Amcha and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, NY.